James 2:14-26 Faith and Works

Reading:  James 2:14-26

Faith without works is dead; These words are pretty clear, and they are very important. It would be fair to say that there has been a great deal of debate about how we are to understand the relationship between faith and good works. This is a passage that many people must wrestle with, because it does not always fit comfortably with our theological views. James 2:17 was so challenging to Martin Luther’s faith that he declared James as contrary to the gospel, and he called it an epistle of straw.

The gospel that Luther speaks of, of course, is something that we can find in Paul’s writings. I could choose to read from a number of Paul’s epistles, but I choose to read from Ephesians 2:4-10

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Jesus Christ, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.  (Ephesians 2:4-10 NRSV)

When people think of Paul’s gospel, they often focus on being saved by grace, through faith — they often focus on how salvation is not of our own doing, and that we have nothing to brag about. This focus can lead us to doubt the focus that James gives to good works. One might fear that James by focusing on works makes Christianity about what we do, rather than about what Jesus did, and thus come to the conclusion that Luther came to.

It is not difficult to set up a narrative where Paul and James are at odds with one another. James is a leader of Jewish Christians, Paul is the apostle to the gentiles. When Peter behaved inappropriately at Antioch, no longer eating with the Gentile Christians, it was because James sent a delegation to Antioch. A friend of mine suggested that this implicates James a Judaizer, and thus that would make him Paul’s chief antagonist.

Of course I’ve mentioned before that I believe that the book of James is largely based on the teachings of Jesus — I believe that it is an early book, and that it is a witness to early Christianity. When I read the gospel, I notice that Jesus calls on people to behave in a certain way. The sermon on the mount, for example, deals largely with behavior — calling people to act in a way that most of us find challenging.

In Matthew 25:31-49, Jesus describes the Judgment of the nations, and when he tells the standards people are judged on, Jesus does not mention their beliefs, or their faith but the actions of giving food and drink to those who are hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner. James 2:15 echoes this when James asks: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them `Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, it it has no works, is dead.”

Just as I know people who follow the extreme example of Martin Luther, I know others who look at things like this, quote George Bernard Shaw and say: “Paul is the great perverter of Christianity.” These people say they want the Christianity of Jesus, and they point to Paul as the origin of a comfortable Christianity that does has nothing prophetic to say to the culture it is in.

I of course am a traditionalist. My Bible includes both James and Paul; and I have to find a way to accept both as authorities. The way I do this is that I believe that both are true, and that choosing one or the other is a false choice. I also believe that Paul’s critics, and too often Paul’s supporters misrepresent what Paul taught. Perhaps Paul and James argued about what it meant to have a Christianity that grew beyond Jewish culture; there are hints of such arguments in Acts and Paul’s epistles, but I like having a tradition that has some room for argument.

One thing I’ve learned about the Christian tradition is that heresy is most often found in creating a false dichotomy. The Orthodox position is, for example, that Jesus is both God and Human. If you defend the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity, you fall into heresy no less than those who argue that Christ is human and not divine.

I personally think of this argument about faith or works to be similar; if we choose one or the other, we lose something that is important to Christianity. If we reduce Christianity to a list of rules, customs, and behaviors, we risk turning Christian into an adjective that describes people who behave according to that code. If we say that Christianity is only a system of beliefs, but has no relationship to behavior, we risk becoming a group that discusses what we believe about the afterlife, but has little to offer for this life.

Personally, I think this argument would not have gotten off the ground if we didn’t focus on verses and short quotes, and instead looked at every epistle as a whole. Remember in James 1 when James said: “Let nobody say God is tempting me”, James reminds us that we are tempted by our own desires — I would say even our own thought patterns, and in the passage we read today, James tells us that Faith is shown by our works.

When I read Paul’s epistles, I see something rather striking; Paul tells us that Christ came to save us from our sin. This is very different from being saved from the consequences of sin, or to be saved from hell; to be saved from sin is to be saved from the power that it has over our lives.

There is something about sin that kills. Sin kills our relationships, sin kills our hope, sin is a destructive force in our lives. If we are truly saved from sin — then we would be truly saved from the destructive thought processes and behaviors that do so much damage. Paul’s salvation isn’t about what we do — but, this salvation is something that changes us — and it is as much of a change as being resurrected from what killed us.

Observe from the passage we read today, James tells us: “I will show you my faith by my works.” What we believe is powerful. What we say and do comes from the way we think — and the way we think comes from what we believe. If we say that we believe one thing, yet we act in a different way, how strong is that belief? I know that habits die hard — I know that Paul wrote of struggling against habits, but what we do and what we believe are linked together. Works most consistently come out of Faith — and a faith that one never acts upon isn’t much of a faith at all. Faith without works is indeed dead.

James 1:19-27: Pure vs worthless religion

Reading:  James 1:19-27
Reading this, I have to admit that my religion is sometimes pretty worthless. Sometimes, no matter how righteous my cause is — I am able speak before I listen. I was angry just a few days ago, and I spoke out of that anger. This week I am reading and talking about the passage that says: “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness,” and later “If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.

This is not an easy passage for me, and I have met few who would say that it is as easy passage for them either. When I speak in anger, without listening, I want to say that I spoke for the right reasons. I want to say that I am on the side of righteousness — or that God is on my side. I want to say that my anger is justified, because I am right. I even want to defend my anger by insisting that my anger is about the right things — but, James tells me that my anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

The words of Jesus really are not any easier. In the sermon on the mount Jesus speaks on anger saying:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
(Matthew 5:21-26 NRSV)

Jesus’ advice is to place reconciliation even above religious practice. God tells us that we face judgment for our anger, and that if somebody has a grievance, make it right, make reconciliation, even if it means leaving the temple. Making our relationships right is more important than going to worship.

What is religion? Religion is something grounded in a faith in something or Someone much larger than ourselves — it is a faith that causes us to live differently. People who are religious do things to practice their religion; they take time out of their schedules to go to a place of worship, they read scriptures, they pray, they fast, they give to support their religious institutions. I hate it when people say they have a relationship and not a religion — I have a relationship with a lot of people who I would ignore if they told me how to live my life, or what my relationships with my family should look like. The relationship does not give these people permission to change the details of my life — but, religion does just that, religion asks me to change the way I approach life, and even habits of thought and attitude like what I do with anger. Yes — my religion is about a relationship with Christ, but it is more than just another relationship; it is something that permeates and changes my life.

What is hard here is the reminder that as important as those acts of piety that I am used to are, there are some much more basic things that are far more important. It is hard for me to imagine bringing a sacrifice to the temple, and when it is my turn to offer the sacrifice, I remember that I need to reconcile with my brother — so I run out and do it; fix relationships first.

The New Testament makes the importance of loving your fellow human beings very clear. The first thing that comes to my mind is the passage in 1 John 4:20 tells us that if we cannot love our brother, who we see, than we do not love God who we do not see. Jesus talks about loving others, including the other on multiple occasions — the story of the good Samaritan where that man is made an example stands out, as does his direct command to “Love your enemies.” Jesus gives the explanation that there is nothing noble about loving those who love us back.

If I am to give a theological explanation I would look back to the creation narrative, and how it tells us that God created humanity in God’s own image — both male and female. I would point out that images are important, and that almost every temple you walk into holds an image that represents the god of the temple — but, for the followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, making an image to represent God was forbidden. Now, I’m not going to go down the rabbit trail of Christian images, nor the argument about what is appropriate and what isn’t. I am going to say that Torah both rejected images made by human hands to represent God, and informed humanity that God personally crafted an image.

Now, think about what this means — think about how important images are to us. We might think that we are too modern to connect an image with the thing that it represents — but we do it constantly. For those of us who use a computer, we click on `icons’ all the time, with no thought of separating the action the computer does with the icon that has come to represent the action.

Think about how angry people get if somebody burns a flag in protest. There are all sorts of calls of criminalizing this extreme action. Does this not sound like an extreme reaction to what a person does with a small piece of patterned cloth? How is it different from any other piece of cloth? If the protester burned the flag where nobody could see it burn, nobody would get angry, and the fire would not harm anything — as long as it did not spread, so why is the flag more than a piece of cloth?

The flag is different because of the value we put on it. We take a very big concept — that of a nation of over 300 million people that is built on a philosophy of what it means to be a free people who are ruled justly, and a system of laws that tries to to be consistent with that philosophy; and we attach all our complex feelings to a piece of cloth with a specific pattern. When we see that cloth, we feel about the cloth the same way we feel about the nation — if we are angry with the nation, we are angry with the flag; and if we see violence done to the flag — even though the nation is unharmed, we feel anger as if our nation, and not a piece of cloth was burning. This is the power of an image.

God commanded that there be no image of God, but there were still images. The best known was the Ark of the Covenant, and to a lesser degree the Temple. These were images that declared God was present, but there was no Idol, no statue of the most high God.

There is also symbol that God’s law was the sovereign law of the land — and the sovereign law of a person’s home; Jewish custom was to put a few verses of scripture into a small box, and nail that box to the entryway. Nobody will open a mezuzah to read the scripture contained inside; but it sits there as a symbol that Torah is sovereign — including the commandment in Deuteronomy 6 to write the commandments you hear today on the doorposts of your houses.

These symbols however are not the image of God; Torah teaches that God made God’s own image in humanity. When we read that Jesus tells us to leave worship if we need reconciled with our brother, and do that right away — think about what the images mean. The person we need reconciled with is God’s image — how can we love God, and hate God’s image? This question should make as much sense to us as: “How can we love our country, yet hate its flag?”

One thing religion has always been about is images — and if we despise the image of the God we claim to worship; is it not obvious that our religion is worthless? The reason that this would be a priority — even a priority above pious acts such as participating in worship should seem clear. To quote a later part of James, about the need to control the tongue: “With our tongue, we bless God yet curse man who is made in God’s image — this should not be”. If we do not bridle our tongue — if we curse God’s image, we symbolically curse God.

The first chapter of James ends with telling us that pure and undefined religion is to care for orphans and widows in their distress. This is a natural result of humanity being God’s image — the most religious thing to do is, if one sees an image defiled, to try and clean it up, perhaps even to repair minor damage. The society that the early Christians lived in did not treat the vulnerable people as God’s image; no, it treated God’s image as so much garbage. True religion sees God’s image for what it is — and works to honor it.

James 1:1-18

Reading:  James 1:1-18

My relationship with James is kind of odd — out of all the books in the Bible, I’m most familiar with it. It takes just over 10 minutes to recite, and as a teenager I think I was able to do so. I know the text of James very well, but I’m not always very sure what to do with it. James is hard; and if you don’t think it is hard then think of the last time that you had to go to a hospital, or your car broke down; or the money ran out before the month and you had a moment when you didn’t know that everything would be all right — did you experience this as joy? My teenage self redefined the word `joy’ to mean those things I didn’t want — I knew the words, but I’m quite sure that entirely missed the point.

James is also hard because we really don’t know much about the epistle. Tradition tells us that it was written by James the brother of Jesus — and, ancient tradition has three competing traditions on what this means, one is that James was one of Joseph’s children from a previous marriage; and there are ancient writers who believed that they were Joseph’s children by Mary the mother of Jesus. Jerome’s theory is that James is the son of Cleopas, Joseph’s brother, who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus (and thus Mary the mother of James, mentioned in Mark, is Cleopas’ wife, and Jesus’ aunt.)

What tradition agrees on is that after Jesus was taken up into heaven, James became the head of the Christian community in Jerusalem, and he remained there until his death in either 62 AD or 69 AD depending on which source you use — James was killed by Jewish leaders by being thrown off the temple, then beaten to death with a club.

Tradition tells us very little about the book of James, other than who wrote it. I cannot look at the great ancient preachers and read their sermons on James; I cannot even say that James meets the description used for scripture that it was “accepted everywhere from the beginning”, because it is missing from several of the “local” canons, and according to the 4th century church historian Eusebius James was a disputed book.

This, and a few internal issues causes many scholars question the tradition that James wrote the epistle of James, and suggest that it might be the last book of the New Testament, written as late as the 2nd century. They have the idea that James is either an ancient sermon, or perhaps a piece of wisdom literature that somehow had “James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” added to the beginning.

The scholars who accept the tradition that James was written by James the brother of Jesus, and the head of the Jerusalem church obviously date James before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. One of the proposed dates is before the council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15, which would explain why this letter is only addressed to Jewish Christians; the decision that a person could be Christian without becoming a Jew had not been made yet. This is my favorite theory.

If I go with this theory, then this epistle would come between the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 and the council that decided to accept Gentile Christians in Acts 15, sometime before 50 AD. When the Jewish leaders persecuted the Jewish Christians; many left Jerusalem for safer places. The church didn’t spread when everybody was content to stay in Jerusalem, but it did spread under persecution — and, James would have had people under his spiritual care who had left Judah for safer places. I like to picture this as a letter to religious refugees, and as the oldest book in the New Testament.

One reason I like the early date is that it makes James very interesting because James quotes Jesus a lot, and when not quoting, there seems to be an allusion to the words of Jesus. An early date for James is interesting because this would make James the earliest extant source of the teachings of Christ. I can read “Consider it pure Joy” and notice this is a lot like the sermon on the mount which begins:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:3-12 (NRSV)

To put the first words of James into the formula of the sermon on the mount:  “Blessed are you when you face diverse trials, for the testing of your faith brings endurance and leads to maturity.”  This sounds a lot like Jesus.

James jumps from this to telling those of us who lack wisdom to pray for it, and to trust God to give it to us. Following this, James tells the poor to talk about how they are raised up, and the rich to talk about how they are brought down — Christ is an equalizer, and in Luke’s gospel Jesus says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven… but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

James follows this by reminding everybody that when we are tempted, we are tempted by our own desires. I know it is an old joke, but I smile at the person who prays the Lord’s prayer, and when he gets to “Lead me not into temptation”, adds: “for I already know the way.”

Today’s section ends with the verse that tells us every perfect gift comes from the Father; I tend to see this as God is the source of generosity and the generous spirit — so, even if I give, it is God who gave and give the desire to be generous, so our generosity, as well as any wisdom we receive is ultimately a gift from God.

Mark 16:1-8 “They were afraid”

Reading:  Mark 16

I’ve told you before that one of the challenges of reading Mark is that we fill in the details from other gospels. Matthew and Luke contain almost all of Mark — but both give much more detailed accounts. For this, and likely other reasons Mark is likely the least read gospel. Whenever a person chooses a reading from one of the events in the gospel, Matthew or Luke generally has one that seems more complete. There are, for this reason, very few ancient sermons on Mark.

Mark is however the most interesting gospel to those who speculate on how the gospels were written. It is generally accepted that Mark is the first gospel to be written down — tradition tells us it was written down by Peter’s companion and interpreter Mark, from memory, after Peter died. Mark is interesting, because Matthew and Luke both follow Mark, and when one disagrees with Mark the other will agree with Mark; Mark is clearly not only the oldest, but the authors of Matthew and Luke clearly had a copy of Mark on hand while they wrote their gospels.

Mark’s account of the resurrection is extremely interesting to those people who study old handwritten gospel texts, compare them, and try to decide which reading belongs in our Bibles. I first learned about this in a class where I was assigned to compare Mark 16 according to various translations, and what I found is that Mark 16:9-20 is not in everybody’s Bible. I learned that there are four different ways that Mark ends; The oldest copies of Mark end with verse 8 “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” There were other copies that had a “Shorter ending.” which reads “And all that had be commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter, And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Of course, the majority of ancient copied approved to be read in church contained our traditional verses 9-20 which ends with Jesus being taken up into heaven; of these some contained the shorter ending as well, but most did not.

If you look at your Bible, you will find one of three things; If you look at a King James Version, you will find Mark 16:1-20 with not even a note. If you look at a Revised Standard Version, you will see that it ends at verse 8, verses 9-20 might or might not be in a footnote. If you look at a New international version, or the New Revised standard Version, you will find a note that the oldest copies have nothing beyond verse 8, and you will find both the shorter and the longer ending of Mark. If you look at the English Standard Version, you will find a note that “Some early manuscripts do not include 16:9-20″, but you will not find the shorter ending.

The work done to decide which of these 4 options to print in a Bible is known as “Textural criticism”. Personally, my favorite choice is providing us with both the shorter and longer endings — of course I’m also the sort of person who likes critical editions of just about anything, especially when they are full of editor’s footnotes.

What I personally think is going on here is that the original ending was: “They were afraid.” We all know the story did not end there — we also know that it is not a very satisfying ending — but, in a real way it is the right ending. On Thursday, the disciples scattered, of the 12, only Peter followed Jesus to the trial. In Mark’s account of the Crucifixion, only the women were there — and the women were the ones who figured out where Jesus was buried so they could embalm the body on Sunday. I imagine Peter ending the story here, with the women while Peter and the disciples are still scattered and confused.

Two things that I want to point out — the first of which is a product of culture, and the second something in the phrasing. The first thing I want to observe is that from Thursday to Sunday, if there is any action that requires courage or strength of character the disciples don’t do that action; but the women did. While the disciples abandon Jesus, the women are there, all the way to the cross. Greek culture did not have a flattering view of women if you say somebody is womanlike, you would be calling that person a coward and possibly suggesting that the person had other moral weaknesses as well. If this gospel were accounted to a Greek audience, the point would be that Peter and the disciples were even more cowardly and morally inferior to women.

The second point is that when the angel spoke to the Mary’s and told them to tell the disciples and Peter. What stands out here is that Peter is named as somebody separate from the disciples. The last we saw of Peter — he was denying that he was a disciple — and, now we have the women sent to tell the disciples, and Peter who is at this point outside the number. In my mind I hear Peter telling this story, and I know Easter morning this is how things really were — Jesus was risen, but the disciples were still scattered, and Peter still had denied being a disciple and Jesus still had not restored him. I like the idea that Peter may have stopped telling the story here.

The thing is, we all know that this isn’t the end of the story — if it were, Peter would not be standing there telling it — there is much more to be said; shall we say, there is an epilogue. You see, the story does not end at the cross, nor does it end at the graveside — nor even with the angel telling Mary to tell the disciples. There is a reason why most Bibles have an Epilogue — because the story went on. Jesus met the disciples, specifically restored Peter, gave them a mission to spread the gospel to the ends of the Earth, ascended into heaven and put the story into the hands of the Disciples.

As you can see, I’m here speaking about this grand story of the gospel — the epilogue we read still does not go to the end of the story. The story continued after Peter and the others died, it continued after everybody who they taught died, and for generations following. The story of what Jesus is doing in the world is continuing today. The story of Easter is not just that Jesus was raised from the dead, but that Jesus became truly present. The end of the story is that not even death can keep our Lord away; even when we are unfaithful, Christ never abandons us.

Mark 15 — Good Friday

Reading: Mark 15

I know that the calendar says that today is “Palm Sunday”, but in our study of Mark’s gospel, we are on Good Friday. The reason why it is traditional to have a good Friday service is that you cannot jump from Palm Sunday to Easter. Holy Week is a full week; and by far the best covered week in the gospels; and this is why we’ve been studying passages that take place during Holy week for over a month.

In Mark’s account, Friday’s events begin at sunrise. Last week we talked about the non-binding midnight, hidden trial that happened so that they could secretly condemn Jesus to death — but the first thing in the morning there is the need to have a trial in a court that was able to do something about it — so, at sunrise they bind Jesus and take him to Pilate.

Pilate hears the findings of the secret night court, and he asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews, and about the list of accusations that the local government takes to Rome. Jesus again offers no defense, which surprises Pilate. Pilate apparently does not feel that these charges deserve death, so he asks the crowd which prisoner he should release — offering the choice between Jesus and Barabbas the murderer. When the crowd asked that he pardon Barabbas and punish Jesus — Pilate asked the crowd what his crime was — but the crowd simply yelled crucify him and Mark tells us Pilate had Jesus crucified because he wished to “satisfy the crowd.”

This double trial tells us something of the rights of the local government — while they had the autonomy to order that a man be arrested, to convict that somebody, and to order a punishment of beating, they did not have the autonomy necessary to execute somebody. They did not only submit to Rome for the purpose of paying taxes, but also in matters of justice.

Pilate’s actions also give us a hint of his position; and the hint it gives me is that he must have felt some insecurity in the position. If you notice, Pilate wants to please the crowd; now he’s not in an elected position — Pilate had no direct reason to please the crowd — none of the crowd has a vote on his position — now why would he want to please them?

A huge hint comes in that the public executions included a person who was involved in an insurrection. If there had been such instability recently enough that there were public executions for the sake of an insurrection, that had to reflect poorly on Pilate. The worst thing that could happen to him is if his superiors in Rome felt he was not up to the task of governing.

Now, something that I find interesting is that when Pilate examined Jesus and heard the accusations, which clearly included that he claimed the Jewish throne, Pilate’s response was to ask the crowd if they would like Jesus, the king of the Jews to be pardoned. Mark tells us that Pilate recognized that the local leadership turned over Jesus out of jealousy — in other words, he didn’t see Jesus as a threat to himself — but, instead, a threat to the local politicians — basically, it was an issue that he didn’t want to get involved with. I might say that Pilate didn’t like the idea of these local leaders bothering him at dawn, and trying to pull his strings and make him dance like he was their puppet.

In the end, Pilate does what the crowd demands — he does not want a riot — and Jesus is again beat and mocked. When Jesus is lead away to be crucified, one of the people in Jerusalem, Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus is pressed to carry Jesus’ cross. Cyrene is part of what is now Libya — actually, some of us have are very familiar with this part of the world: Benghazi, Libya is historically part of Cyrene.

Tradition tells us that Simon and his family later lived in Antioch, and were part of that Christian community. Paul mentions Rufus and his mother in Romans, and while I don’t know much of anything about Alexander — tradition tells us that Rufus is one of the 70 disciples Jesus sent out to preach, and it also tells us that he was a leader of the early church, at one point becoming bishop of Thebes. The point is, when this story is being told, these are people who are known in the early church. While the soldiers pressed a random man to carry Jesus’ cross — he, and his whole family were known as part of the resurrection community.

Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified at 9:00 AM. From dawn to 9:00 is, in the early spring just 3 hours. The Roman trial, the mocking, the beating, the walk to the spot of the Crucifixion all took place in just 3 hours. When Jesus was crucified, the mocking continued. The local politicians mocked Jesus, and those on the cross also mocked Jesus. When Jesus said Eloi Eloi lema sabachthani, people thought he was calling for Elijah, and said: “Let’s see if Elijah comes.”

Mark tells us that basically all that is left of his group of disciples is a couple women named Mary who followed Jesus, and provided for his physical needs, and perhaps other women as well. At the time of the Crucifixion the men were scattered, but the women where there at the end.

Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council; in other words, somebody who might have been at Jesus’ trial the night before, went to Pilate and asked for the body to be buried. Joseph is traditionally considered to be one of Jesus’ disciples, and thus, one might assume that Joseph was a reason why the conflicting testimony delayed a conviction; perhaps not everybody decided in advance. The Marys see Jesus buried.

Like before, Mark’s account is the briefest; there is much of the story that Mark does not tell — Mark only mentions women at the Crucifixion — Mark does not mention Jesus saying to John: “behold your mother.” Another thing that one does not see in Mark is Pilate sending Jesus to face Herod. Mark also does not have the exchange between Jesus and the thieves on the cross; we only see that the others who were put to death also mocked him.

Mark does not tell us of Jesus appearing before Herod, nor does it have the scene in Matthew where Pilate’s wife has a dream about Jesus, and Pilate at the end washes his hands; It really is hard to read Mark without filling in the details that are in the other gospels.

When I think of the little bit that Mark did include — the feeling is one of how sudden the Crucifixion is; at dawn, the council is banging on Pilate’s door, and by 9 AM Jesus is being nailed to the cross. Whatever hesitations Pilate has in Matthew are not there — instead Pilate simply tests the resolve of the crowd and learns that those who are there, and not only the council wish this to happen.

Two things that stand out for me in Mark’s account of the Crucifixion are the soldier who says: “Truly this was the Son of God” when he sees Jesus die, and that Joseph, who took Jesus’ body and buried him in his personal tomb was on the council. There were two men who were, at least nominally, part of the system that put Jesus on the cross — Joseph, as a member of the council, was part of the body that first convicted Jesus and the Centurion was an executioner; yet both of these saw that the one who was crucified was someone special.

Tradition tells us that the centurion was not only present for the Crucifixion, but was also the leader of the group of soldiers who guarded the tomb after the resurrection. Tradition also tells us that after seeing all this, the Centurion was baptized, left military service and went to his home in Cappadocia where he shared what he saw and experienced. Tradition also tells us that he was executed by Roman soldiers.

The reason these two people stand out is this is a reversal from what I am used to in my own culture. Often the enemy is depicted in ways that make it more difficult to sympathize with them. Our stories are very often simplistic — and we apply this to the gospel, to the point that many of us have turned Pharisee into an insult, when there is nothing shameful about being a Pharisee.

Mark’s gospel does not tell us so much of the story that we are used to hearing — but it does tell us explicitly that there was at least one member of the ‘council’ who felt Jesus deserved a proper burial — and who tradition tells us was one of two voices on the council who opposed the plot against Jesus. The soldiers in an occupation force are not often presented in a sympathetic way; yet here is a soldier who is on of those who participates in making the Crucifixion happen, yet he is also one of the first to recognize who Jesus is. Part of the gospel is that even at the worst moments; those moments when we are suffering under our enemies — these enemies are still not beyond redemption; and this is good news especially for anyone who needs salvation.

Mark 14:17-31 — Thursday, Part 1

Reading:  Mark 14:17-31
Holy Week is really hard for me to get my head around. Today, our reading tells us about supper, Thursday evening. We will be talking about Thursday evening this week and next week; but what stands out is that this is worse than the worst Thursday that I could imagine. With a Thursday like this, if I were in Jesus’ shoes — I would seriously consider fleeing Jerusalem, and spending Passover somewhere else; you see, it is not just what happened, but that Jesus knew what was coming.

Mark’s version of the last supper is extremely short. If you recall, last year we studied John — and John’s last supper filled several chapters. The day is called Maundy Thursday by English speakers because of John; it is thought that this is “mandate Thursday”, the day Jesus gave Christians the commandment that they love one another. Mark however has the shortest account of this dinner — and, this account is to me the most uncomfortable. Mark does not include any of this teaching — so I cannot be distracted by anything other than the raw emotion of what is coming soon.

The account of the last supper starts with:

When it was evening, he came with the twelve, and when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.”

Hearing this, the disciples were greatly distressed, and all denied that it was them; then Jesus goes through a disturbing ritual where he calls the bread and the wine his own flesh and blood. As you likely know, cannibalism is deeply offensive, and eating or drinking blood is not only a taboo but is is forbidden by Torah. Eating blood is one of the things specifically mentioned in Genesis 9 as God’s covenant with Noah, and by extension the rest of humanity. When Acts 15 forbids the eating of animals that are butchered by strangulation — the reason why is because the blood does not drain from the body, but stays in the meat. Kosher salt is called Kosher salt, because it is used by butchers to help draw blood out of meat, so that the meat becomes kosher.

If eating blood is such a taboo that the council of Jerusalem would order Gentile Christians to abstain from strangled meat, and Jews are so careful about getting blood out of meat that they not only let it drain, but they also use salt to draw more out, then how much more must they be offended by the idea of drinking blood; even if it is just symbolically.

After dinner, Jesus tells all the disciples that they will all leave him, and he tells Peter that he will deny them. No matter what Peter or the other disciples say, Jesus knows what is coming, and Jesus knows that when it comes he will be alone. The disciples on the other hand have no idea what is coming, but they surely had a disturbing night. Their teacher said and had them do something shockingly offensive, and then told them that they would all abandon him.

This isn’t the first shocking moment, remember what we talked about last week when Jesus came out of the temple and talked about the complete destruction of Jerusalem, and the end of everything that seemed solid in the world? From the Triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to the last supper must have been surreal. I cannot see how anything made sense, nor how any of them could be comfortable. Everybody must have been quite anxious this Thursday evening — but Jesus saw what was to happen — and, in his way he told the Disciples; he told them directly, he told them his body would be broken, and his blood would be poured out, he told them directly they would be scattered, he told Peter that Peter would deny him that very night.

When I read Mark, I respond to it by feeling how real this is. One might say that the last Supper in Mark makes me feel like the garden of Gethsemane is already in Jesus’ heart when he sits down to eat with Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is already committed to drinking the cup that he must drink. All day Thursday, Jesus knew what would come later in the day — and he knew what would come on Friday.

This is another point where Mark does not tell us anything more than the story, and he writes the narrative using as few words as possible. I feel like the only thing that I have to learn from this passage in Mark’s gospel is compassion for Jesus and compassion for the disciples. This is a challenging day for all of them, and by the time the day ends, it is a day that every one of the 12 is ashamed of — one will even die from his shame as he hangs himself. This is a passage that invites us to feel compassion, and it reminds us that Christ also has suffered, and is capable of compassion for us.

Mark 13:1-27 — end of the world; dawn of Christianity

Reading: Mark 13:1-27

After Jesus and the disciples go to the temple, he talks to them about what is for anybody in their culture the end of the world; the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem. This talk must have been difficult to hear for so many reasons, and there must have been so much that went through the disciples minds when they heard these prophecies — there must have also been many things that went through their minds as their lives unfolded; but the first think that comes to mind is confusion.

The first place the mind must have gone is the literal absurdity of the temple being destroyed so completely. King Herod took the 500 year old temple and completely renovated and expanded it. The temple was built on a plateau on Mt. Moriah, and Herod built up the mountain, replacing the slope with a floor that matched the level of the plateau; the Temple became a great feat of engineering as it was no longer a building on a mountain, but the land itself was changed to hold the temple. This great structure is, of course no longer there; but when my grandfather visited Jerusalem, he was able to visit the Dome of the Rock, and he told me of the flat stone covering the Temple Mount. Not one stone of the temple remains — but the alteration to the Mountain that allowed this temple to be built remains.

The temple was an impressive structure; one would look at it and wonder at how such a thing could be built; and one would also wonder how it would be so completely destroyed. There was something about the Temple that was just as permanent as Jerusalem — it would have been hard to imagine a Jerusalem without a temple. The temple, if it survived, would remain as a wonder of the ancient world.

Of course, they might also start to think about the history of the descendant’s of Israel and where they worshiped. The story starts of course with the Exodus. A portable temple that we call the Tabernacle was made during the time of Moses, and as the people of Israel wandered in the desert, their Tabernacle moved with them. The place of worship moved with the people, but even after the people of Israel were settled, they continued to use the Tabernacle.

After the people of Israel were settled for centuries, David observed that he lived in a royal palace, yet the sacrifices, and the national place of worship was a mere tent. It had been hundreds of years since the Israelis were nomadic; people lived in permanent houses — yet, the Tabernacle was a relic of the nomadic past when they were landless people. David felt it was not appropriate that he had a palace, and that God had a tent — so he called for a temple.

God tells the prophet Nathan to tell David that God never asked for a temple, and that he would not build one — but his son would build it. Solomon’s temple was impressive. It had impressive wood panels, gold inlays, and many gold artifacts. The temple lasted 400 years, until the Babylonians came and burned it down and took all of the gold and the artifacts.

After 70 years, Cyrus the great ordered that the Jews be allowed to return to Jerusalem. There were some attempts to rebuild the temple; first Zerubbable, prince of the Jews in line to David’s throne was appointed governor. The Persians sent raw materials, and ordered the temple to be rebuilt; and according to the prophet Haggai, Zerubbable built a ‘richly paneled’ house for himself while the temple lay in ruins; the implication is that he used the material that was intended for the temple.

Zerubbable, the prince of the Jews was replaced with a governor-priest, Ezra, who was replaced with Nehemiah. After a couple false starts, the temple was rebuilt, but it was just a shadow of what the original was. The second temple lacked several things that were in the first, but the most important was that there was not ark of the covenant — the symbol of God’s presence that was in the most holy place in the first was missing so that the holy of holies in the second temple was empty.

Eventually, the Greeks conquer the Persians, and Judea falls under Greek rule. The Greeks try Hellenize the Jews by forcing them to eat pork. They even put up a statue of Zeus in the temple, and sacrificed a pig to Zeus to rededicate the temple to Zeus. The Jews would of course revolt, drive the Greeks out, and rededicate the temple, and establish an independent Jewish kingdom — the celebration of this is called Hanukkah, and we read about this in the Maccabees.

Mark Antony set up Herod as king of the Jews, so he replaced the Hasmonean dynasty with his own kingdom, and Judea was at this point very much a client kingdom of Rome. Herod was, among other things, a great builder; you might say that he made Jerusalem great again — and, while nothing could return the ark of the covenant to the temple, he not only made the temple great again; but he made it greater than it had ever been.

The history of the temple is the history of the Jewish world ending; the Jewish world fell apart when the temple was destroyed by the Babylonian empire, and it fell apart again when the new temple was defiled by the Greek empire. Perhaps when the disciples heard this, they would think of the meaning of Hanukkah, or perhaps they would think of the destruction of the first temple.

No matter what the disciples thought Jesus meant, very soon they would watch their world completely fall apart. In a few days Jesus would be arrested, tried, and executed. With Jesus, the hopes that the disciples held would die no less than if the temple were torn down — the disciples world was about to end.

Of course, Peter would have told this story after the Resurrection — while his world ended, a new order was re-established, but this story also remained current. Peter lived through some interesting times; the last three emperors of his time were named Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

Caligula is famous for being a murderous madman. His antics include ordering members of the audience into the Colosseum to be executed, because there were not enough prisoners for his entertainment. Perhaps the best known antic was when he had a horse made a senator — and that he would have political dignitaries dine with the horse.

A lesser known antic, however, is that Caligula heard that the temple in Jerusalem had no divine image for people to worship, and he realized that although he was a god, there was no temple with his image — he thought it would be great to solve both problems by erecting a statue of himself in the Temple of Jerusalem. Fortunately, he was assassinated before this happened.

Claudius had the Jews expelled from Rome, due to a disturbance related to somebody named Chrestus. Now, there are two possibilities — either this is the first time that Christians became known to the Emperor, and at this time they were seen as part of a Jewish argument, or this Chrestus is somebody else. Either way, negative imperial attention is a bad thing.

When Claudius’ nephew Nero became emperor, the Christians got his full attention in the first full persecution of Christians. Among the Christians who were executed under Nero were Peter and Paul. One might say that for the Christians, the first great persecution would be the end of the world, a time when you really don’t know whether you will be taken or left alive.

Personally, I like the idea that the gospel of Mark was the story that Peter told; and that this oral story was written down by memory after his death. Peter died in the mid to late 60’s, between 2 and 6 years before Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed. The war that led to the destruction of the Temple started in 66 AD, at which point Peter might still have been alive — the war began as an anti-tax protest, and escalated into a full scale war. Peter would die before this war ended, but the prophecy of the desolation and destruction was, at the time that Mark was put to paper, current events. The temple would be completely destroyed in 70 AD.

Titus attacked Jerusalem just before Passover, just under 30 years after Jesus predicted the fall of the temple. According to Josephus, over 1 million civilians would die, most of which were visitors to Jerusalem who were trapped in the siege, and as the city was under siege; the people who came in to celebrate Passover largely died of starvation.

After Jerusalem was razed, and the temple was completely destroyed, and the city lays in ruins for 60 years. The Emperor Hadrian builds a new city on the site of Jerusalem named Capitolina, and he dedicates the city to Jupiter. This remains the name of the city until the 7th century AD, when the city falls to the Arabs.

After the temple and the city was destroyed in 70 AD, Jerusalem would not be a Jewish city again until the 20th century. The temple would, as far as anybody can tell, never be rebuilt. At this point, the world ended; and a new world had to be rebuilt; it was a terrible time to be a Jew, and it was not an easy time to be a Christian either.

Jesus prophesied a very hard thing to imagine; something that would produce an existential crisis for Jews, and a great persecution against His followers. Nero’s time came, the persecution came, and Jerusalem was completely destroyed — but, both Christianity and Judaism survived — but both also changed. Rabbinic Judaism developed in absence of the temple becoming something that we can recognize now; and as the disciples were being killed, something new happened in Christianity: Christians began writing down the stories and teachings of Christ; Christianity changed from people who expected the world to end, to people who watched their world end, and realized that there would be another generation after them. Christianity changed from people who remembered Jesus to people who wrote down memories of Jesus before they were lost.

We are the community that survived the end of the world. While Peter lived, he likely did not imagine that Christianity would be in parts of the world that were not yet discovered, and that people would be talking about the stories that he told 19 and a half centuries after he died. I imagine that Peter spent his life believing that he’d see Jesus coming back in the clouds. I think there is a reason that Christian scripture is largely written from the time of Nero to Domitian. I think the reason is that before, Christians see the prophecies of the world falling apart, and do not realize they will survive. Once they watch Jerusalem fall, and they experience the persecutions, they see that Christianity not only survives, but it thrives; yet it must thrive without the first Christians — it must change. Nero kills Peter, but we exchange Peter and the others for our Bible.